Column: Finally, a coach who put his foot down

JIM LITKE AP Sports Columnist Published:

For the price of a ticket Tuesday night in Tuscaloosa, you could see something rare in college sports anymore: a coach putting his foot down.

The shoe belonged to third-year Alabama basketball coach Anthony Grant, who's made a habit of suspending his own players recently, and sat his two best down against No. 14 Florida in yet another game the Crimson Tide needed to win. They didn't -- dropping a 61-52 decision that left them at 16-9 on the season and 5-6 in the SEC. Afterward, Grant hardly needed reminding that the sub.-500 record in the league meant his team's chances of making the NCAA tournament were considerably slimmer than at the start of the night. He didn't care.

"We've got choices that we've got to make right now," he said. "Do we hang our heads and feel sorry for ourselves, or do we respond like winners respond?"

That's an interesting question in this anything-goes era of college sports, but then Grant is an interesting guy. These days, plenty of coaches respond by looking the other way and won't confront their stars over anything short of a felony. They win, anyway.

Grant served his coaching apprenticeship under Florida's Billy Donovan, who in turn served his under Rick Pitino at Kentucky. Grant is more reticent around reporters than either, but like both, he insists that players do things his way and he's not shy about letting them know who's in charge. He still won't say what JaMychal Green or Tony Mitchell did to earn their indefinite suspensions, or even when they'll be back. But if you're keeping score at home, that's 27 points and 14 rebounds on average that Alabama is doing without every night.

Grant won't say what just-returned Trevor Releford and Andrew Steele did, either, that caused the coach to pack both -- along with Green -- into a car a few hours ahead of Saturday's game at LSU and have an assistant drive them all the way back to campus from Baton Rouge.

All he's said about any of it is that the decisions were his; and since none of the players' names have turned up on police blotters, Grant is still getting the benefit of the doubt. It hasn't hurt, either, that Donovan has been pleading his case at just about every turn, including in the interview room after his Gators put the Crimson Tide away with a 16-0 run to start the second half and coasted comfortably to the win.

"I've always believed this, and I think Anthony believes it, too, that you cannot win big unless as a coach you're prepared to lose big," Donovan began.

The two men have been close for years and spoke for a few moments after crossing paths in the hallway. Before Donovan backed away from his short-lived plan to take an NBA job after winning two national titles at Florida, Grant was considered his likely successor. No doubt they've discussed the problems inherent in building a program before; rarely, though, would those conversations have seemed this relevant.

"When you try to put a cork in a ship that's got some leaks, when it needs to be maybe a whole new bottom put in, you've got to be prepared to do that," Donovan said. "I think Anthony looks at his job coaching, not only wanting to win and compete but what kind of impact he has on these guys. I think he realizes as these guys move on, they're going to know, 'This guy held me accountable and made me do the right things.' Or they're going to know, 'This guy looked the other way and never really required any discipline. You know what? It was all about him just trying to win games.'"

Occupying the high ground is good for as long it lasts. Radio host Paul Finebaum, whose show is syndicated throughout the Southeast, says calls have been running strongly in Grant's favor so far.

"Fans here do understand discipline and they like what Anthony Grant is doing," he said during an appearance on ESPN. He noted that one caller even compared Grant to Bear Bryant, recalling how the revered 'Bama football coach suspended Joe Namath for the final two games of the 1963 season after his star quarterback admitted taking a few sips of a beer. But Finebaum also wondered whether fans still basking in the afterglow of the Crimson Tide's national football championship and a successful session of recruiting (the second-most popular sport in the region) will feel the same about Grant when tournament time rolls around.

"At end of the season," he said, "it might be a different story."

Grant is doing exactly what the NCAA high-handedly promotes as its core mission -- holding himself and his players accountable -- but the selection committee isn't about to cut him any slack for doing the right thing. Every loss still counts as a loss, never mind that it occurred because the coach volunteered to tie one hand behind his back. Grant gets that, too. He won't change a thing because of it.

"We've got some guys right now that are getting opportunities to step out there for extended minutes and are being relied upon to do some things that maybe they didn't have to do before," he said.

"It's a learning experience and some of these lessons are tough lessons. They don't like it. I don't necessarily like it as a head coach," he added, "but maybe it's what we've got to go through."

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/Jim Litke.